PH education: Allergic to religion?

Fritzie Rodriguez

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PH education: Allergic to religion?
In a predominantly Catholic Philippines, how do young Filipinos develop an understanding of religion?

MANILA, Philippines — Are we born, raised, and taught to believe in god? 

The Philippines is a predominantly Christian country where around 80% of the population identify themselves as Roman Catholics. Around 11% identifies with Islam, the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos estimated in 2011. 

Smaller percentages identify with Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, among other religions, while some Filipinos are unaffiliated.

Given this context, how do young Filipinos develop their understanding of religion?

History in a nutshell

“Religion is entrenched in culture and traditions among Filipinos even before the advent of colonialism,” said Julkipli Wadi, Dean of the University of the Philippines Institute of Islamic Studies. “Filipinos have been essentially religious as they’ve been influenced by varying faith traditions and civilizations.”

Wadi added: “The more than 300 years of Spanish colonialism created a religious formulation attached to Spanish colonial tradition. At the end of it, we were left with religious tradition shaped by post-colonial tradition.” This was followed by the coming of Protestant Christian missionaries from the US.

“These two developed a mix of Christian tradition,” Wadi said. “Notwithstanding the fact that the Philippines also developed its own version of folk Christianity, that’s why we see varying sects and denominations with varying interpretations.”

An example of folk Christianity is the Feast of the Black NazareneDevotees of the Black Nazarene. Photo by Franz Lopez/Rappler

Wadi stressed, “Before children are schooled in secular education, they’re already honed with this kind of Christian tradition.” 

Wadi explained that Islam tradition, brought to the country by Arab missionaries, preceded the Spanish.

While Christian tradition was “institutionalized” through educational institutions, Muslims were unable to do so due to centuries of war between Spanish forces and Moro fighters. It was not until the 1920s when Islamic schools began forming in Mindanao.

The birth of the Philippine Republic, Wadi said, minimized the role of Islamic education. “It was only due to the rebellion of the Moros when the government realized the need to recognize and integrate Islamic education into mainstream education.” This began in the 1970s and continues today.

‘Two opposing tendencies’

The Philippine Constitution states the separation of Church and State, but includes a section providing the option for religion to be taught in schools as long as the children’s guardians allow it.

“Even if supposedly the Philippines is secular, essentially the curriculum of education is attached to religious tradition generally identified with Philippine Christian traditions,” Wadi said. Teaching of history is also “Tagalog-centric,” hence children hardly know Muslim heritage. 

Wadi, however, commended recent efforts of the Department of Education (DepEd) in mainstreaming Islamic history, as observed in textbooks. 

But how about religions other than Christianity and Islam?

DepEd ASec Jesus Mateo. Photo by Fritzie Rodriguez/RapplerDepEd Assistant Secretary Jesus Mateo said world religions are integrated in subjects like history and humanities. “You can’t introduce it in one grade level, it’s spread out,” Mateo said.

In 2014, the DepEd removed the phrase “God-loving” from its vision statement, drawing criticism from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), but praise from secular groups. Education Secretary Armin Luistro later clarified that his Department would still nurture God-loving pupils.

“We’re  presented with two opposing tendencies,” said Manuel Sapitula, UP sociology professor. “There’s an attempt to be secular, but we don’t see this.”

Sapitula observed that images of the Virgin Mary are still found in public schools, “primarily because we can’t avoid it, majority of teachers are Catholic. It’s not quite clear that these are public secular schools.”

Sapitula noted that some teachers still  start classes with prayers, but “nobody complains.”

“We don’t hear much about this, since it’s an accepted practice,” he said.

However, Mateo clarified that prayers in schools, if any, must be “ecumenical” since students may have different religions. He added that DepEd supports the students’ right to exercise religion freely.

One problem with Philippine education is the absence of a “critical analysis of religion,” said anthropologist Hector Guazon. He noted that schools only teach “orthodox religion” without letting students critically analyze different beliefs and the way people practice them.

“Praying and religion with critical analysis as a subject are different. It’s different when you force children to pray even if they’re not Catholic,” Guazon said.

He quipped, “Seems that some are allergic to religion.”  He stressed the need for the youth’s “open-minded” study and exposure to religions other than their own.

Sapitula added that this may begin in elementary, but must be presented in a “cognitive level understood by children.” 

‘Values education’

Under DepEd’s policies, “Values Education” – teaching universally accepted and Filipino values – is separate from “optional religious instruction” classes. 

Critics observed that despite DepEd’s policies, some schools teach Values Education entrenched in Catholic teachings.

“The concept of ethics and values is generally associated with religion, the way it’s understood in our country, when they’re not exactly related although there’s some convergence,” Wadi said. “It’s quite sad when values or ethics are taught through the prism of religion or with strong religious undertones, therefore making it sectarian in character.”

He added, “If so, we cannot blame children for developing very sectarian, fractured, and divided mindsets when it comes to religion.” 

Sapitula argued that the demarcation between values and religion in Philippine school settings is weak in practice. “But now DepEd wants a more secular Values Education, that’s an important development, considering the fact that it’s headed by a La Salle brother,” he added.

Acquiring such demarcation, according to Sapitula, will take time. “Separating secular values from subscribing to supernatural force, given our situation, will take a long time.”

Mateo, however, clarified that DepEd’s Values Education classes teach common values found across religions such as caring for the environment, love, and respect for others and the country.

DepEd reminds schools that religion classes are not mandatory and may only be conducted in public elementary and high schools upon the request of parents. Schools must provide teachers for the requested religion; if unavailable, students will be “under the supervision of class advisers.”

What if children want to learn other religions?

“It depends on the religion of the parents,” Mateo said. DepEd policy requires parents to submit written permissions requesting particular religion classes.

“No student shall be allowed or permitted to attend religious instruction classes without the said written application and duly accomplished request of his/her parent or guardian.” – DepEd Order 49, s.2009

Given the Philippine context, it is rare for schools to offer non-Catholic classes. For example, for a Buddhism class to be held, there should be available teachers and enough parents requesting it.

“If no one can teach, why organize it?” said Mateo.

Sapitula argued that parental consent is applicable for religious instructions such as Catechism, but there should be an institutionalized subject on world religions available for all.

“We need students who will be informed on different religions, without asking them to convert,” he said.

Future of schools

Schools should raise awareness and recognition of the increasing diversity of religion among schools, Sapitula advised. 

He also suggested creating modules on “religious literacy,” equipping both students and teachers with baseline knowledge – beliefs, practices, history – of all religions; enabling teachers to explain religions other than the ones they believe in.

Guazon also advised DepEd to train teachers on the critical analysis of religion.

“This helps in challenging stereotypes. Negative prejudices flourish when there is a lack of knowledge about the real state of things,” Sapitula said.

Aside from teaching students and teachers on the importance of understanding and respecting all religions, parents must also be oriented.

There are parents who oppose religion classes, worrying their child will suddenly become Muslim or Buddhist. This thinking is wrong, said Sapitula, stressing that parents should set a good example for children on respecting other people’s beliefs.

Blackboard image and religious symbols from Shutterstock

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